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In Old Havana: No Receipt for You

Going to Cuba is always an adventure. On this, my fourth trip to the island, I stood out at the Miami airport while waiting in line with an all-male church group and several Cuban American families bringing multiple plastic-wrapped bundles. I was headed there to present a paper at the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana's VIII International Congress on Historic Centers; inaugurate WMF's traveling exhibition on the Historic Center of Lima, a 2008 Watch site, at the Convent of San Francisco in Havana, and meet with several local preservation organizations.

Upon arrival I was picked up at the Jose Marti Airport and taken to the elegant Florida Hotel in Old Havana, a converted colonial palace with high ceilings and cooing doves in the courtyard--a luxury that made up for the lack of internet connection. Later on I had dinner with a Cuban colleague at Los Nardos, a licensed private restaurant, where apparently being private prevents them from giving receipts to their customers. This made me think that lobbying for a preservation tax incentives law was off the mark here. No receipt, no travel reimbursement for me, but who could be mad at a waiter named “Adonis”?

I visited the famous Riviera hotel in Vedado, a Meyer Lansky venue with a coffin-shaped pool and the largest lobby known to man, and had lunch at a more recent but less charming hotel where the mustard and ketchup came from Spain. A minor side effect of the US embargo: no business for Heinz in Cuba.

As a result of an energy crisis, the streets in Old Havana are dark at night, but the public transportation has improved since my last visit in 2003, when workers had to pack on to adapted trailer trucks called “camels” to commute. The old US cars are still ubiquitous and can be rented or hired as taxis, as an alternative to the tiny coconut shaped motorcycle taxis called “coquitos.”

After the official business of presenting at the meeting on historic centers, opening our Lima exhibition, and meeting with the preservation organizations was over, I visited the National Schools of Art in Cubanacan, now the Superior Institute of Art, a 1998 Watch site and an important monument of the 20th century. Roberto Gottardi, one of the three original architects (the other two are Roberto Porro and Vittorio Garatti), Jose Mosquera, a draftsman, and Universo Garcia, the project manager for the current restoration project, came along and showed me the carefully restored schools of plastic arts and dance designed by Porro. The school of dramatic arts, which had been only partially completed in 1965, was in process of being restored and completed according to plans developed by Gottardi, who also has proposed an unusual treatment for the restoration of the damaged brick walls, reminiscent of the lacunae treatment in mural painting conservation. The sad news was that the project budget has been cut and the restoration and completion of Garatti's schools of ballet and music will have to wait.